Tim Page takes issue with Richard Taruskin

Tim Page takes issue with Richard Taruskin


norman lebrecht

July 03, 2022

In contrast to Will Robin’s egregious obituary in Friday’s New York Times, bestowing a stainless halo on the contentious musicologisr Taruskin, Tim Page in the Washington Post finds fault with his arrogance, egomania and multiple errors.

Dr. Taruskin had many admirers. Alex Ross of the New Yorker called him “the most important living writer on classical music, either in academia or in journalism” in a recent interview with musicologist William Robin….

Tim Page quotes the composer John Adams: “He has made a specialty of character assassination,” Adams told the British newspaper the Independent in 2002. “This makes good copy. It’s sort of like watching those tacky ‘true crime’ shows on television: there must always be a body count at the end, whether the target is Prokofiev, Shostakovich scholars, or anyone else he decides to humiliate.”

As for Taruskin’s prejudices and wilful myopia. Tim adds: ‘In his history (of music), for example, there were no mentions of Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Duke Ellington, Ruth Crawford Seeger or Stephen Sondheim. The name of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, once voted the most popular composer in the world in a New York Philharmonic radio poll and the subject of a huge revival in the last two decades of the 20th century, appeared five times in 4,560 pages, and then only in passing.’…

Read the full obit here.


  • Duncan says:

    Yes he was biased, even predjudiced, but his writings were always worth reading, even if you didn’t agree with him.

    • Carol says:

      The inward drama of our personal responses to artworks and the consequent refusal of the formalist to recognize that the artwork can also be experienced ‘from within’ represents a deprivation for which no exquisiteness of taste can compensate.

      No account of art can afford to ignore the importance of such personal encounters. It is not arbitrary subjectivism but rather the idea that the artwork is a constituted object, and as such bears within itself indelible traces of the active and spontaneous involvement of the constituted subject.

      • Tony_B says:

        Thanks, Mr. Adorno. Taruskin blithely wrote that music can harm. So can words, and so especially did his.

  • Gerry Feinsteen says:

    Taruskin was the musician’s musicologist, not some scholar wasting time discussing orgasms in Beethoven or the role of climate change on minimalism.

    Text&Act should be required reading in every HIP program, and his Oxford History of Music makes for a most wonderful read. Sure, he may leave a few names out or minimize some, but he really tells the story of Western music like no other.

    May his memory be for blessing.

    • Scholar says:

      Accuracy is the key point here. How bias does a musicologist have to be before they cease to be accurate. There were times when he told ‘his’ story, rather than an objective one.

    • 18mebrumaire says:

      “The role of Climate Change on Minimalism” — brilliant! Found my PhD topic at last. So good, it almost writes itself.

    • Jenni says:

      Could you tell me which scholars are discussing orgasms in Beethoven?

      • Armchair Bard says:

        Bit literal-minded there, Jenni. But since you ask: Susan McClary (albeit tangentially & after a fashion) in 1987:

        “The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth is one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.”

        • Freewheeler says:

          Hmm, sounds interesting. I’ll have to have a listen to this “Ninth” thingie now. Who’s it by again?

          • Armchair Bard says:

            Huh? It’s still (see Jenni’s enquiry above, what I was answering) by Beethoven. Or has some lunatic gone and re-attributed it?

        • Toby says:

          I think McClary was agreeing with another writer, possibly the poet Adrienne Rich. In any case, this was not one of Susan’s most trenchant writings.

          • Armchair Bard says:

            The citation of course irresistible in this less-than-serious context, Toby. But yes, McClary soon came to regret the remark, if only for the disproportionate notoriety it brought (and continues to bring); she subsequently rowed back on it.

            Next up: “A Clockwork Orange” and a bit of the old Ludwig van, a bit of the old in-out in-out . . .

      • David M Eaton says:

        Susan McClary in her infamous description of the climatic moment in the first movement of Beethoven’s 9th.

  • Armchair Bard says:

    [Full disclosure: RT once chased my not-then girlfriend round a mulberry bush in Annapolis.]

    It must be acknowledged that Taruskin’s extraordinarily ill judged & intemperate response to a 2008 TLS survey by the late Hugh Wood of books about Elgar — a survey, moreover, in which he wasn’t actually mentioned — will surely only have delighted his detractors. And of course he was asking for trouble . . .

    Here are their first two letters; compare, contrast, enjoy:

    Sir, — As a spoof of what Hugh Wood calls your national inferiority complex, his survey of recent books on Elgar might have raised an indulgent chuckle, but he seems to have meant it, and you to have printed it, in all seriousness. But who do you think will take seriously such a parade of stereotyped national vices? Defensive insularity, anti-intellectualism, know-it-all complacency, proud ignorance, blimpish spite, all pass in comical, contradictory review. By the time I got to pot’s complaint that kettle’s (in this case Schenker’s) “range of interest is limited and narrow” I couldn’t help myself. I laughed out loud. What favour did you think you were doing your reviewer, your readers, or indeed Elgar, by publishing this self-pitying display? [2 April]

    Sir, — I greatly admired (and in the THES of May 20, 2005, favourably reviewed) Richard Taruskin’s achievement in The Oxford History of Western Music. The often remarked-on omission of Elgar’s name from it surely puts him in a rather invidious position now. What is really bugging him? Why does he resort once again to the sort of random, all-purpose, indiscriminate abuse with which colleagues who have displeased him in some way are already only too familiar?

    I suspect that behind the chuckles and the fausse bonhomie lurks the fury of one who hears unwillingly a voice other than his own. Honestly, I never knew it was quite so easy to draw blood. I guess I’m kind of honoured to be the target this time, but I wish I could rate the tirade as the measured judgement of a distinguished scholar rather than the self-indulgent reaction of someone suffering from an ill-digested lunch.

    A few questions remain. Just what type of second-rateness in these books is he intent on protecting? Has he any interesting thoughts about Elgar? What did he have for lunch? [16 April]

    (For those who can, the whole correspondence — which takes in six scholars across five issues — is worth seeking out; not least for its secondary strand, concerning “Elgar 3” and the completion of unfinished works generally. I won’t further delight Taruskin’s detractors with his response to Wood, in which he set up two strapping straw men either side of an irrelevant (and unpleasant) ad hominem attack on another scholar. AB)

    • MWnyc says:

      Straw men. Yes.

      Taruskin’s entire attack on the period-instrument movement was built on a strapping straw man.

      Charles Rosen put it best: “… he reserves his greatest scorn for opinions that no one really holds. But he flays his dead horses with vigor …”

      • Toby says:

        Rosen was certainly an object for Taruskin’s vitrol. He hated that Rosen called him that Elliott Carter’s (and others’) music was primarily used as a cold-war propaganda tool. And of course he wouldn’t back down, even when Rosen shared his personal experiences with those performances, and of the audiences. Like most cultural-theory-inspired music scholarship, the erected “theory” creates an oppressive totalistic view that music lovers and musicians can hardly recognize.

        • Eric says:

          His improbable theory of so-called elitists helps derail his discussion of 19th century German music, eager as he is to diminish it. There is a passage identifying poor old Brahms as an “elitist” – the reasoning is so convoluted I can’t even paraphrase it – after which the Franco-Prussian war is dragged into the argument, all of which is meant to suggest that German culture is not really a wonderful thing. At least he doesn’t blame Brahms for the Holocaust, adapt as he was at sniffing out imaginary as well as real antisemitism.

          To his credit the earlier volumes in his history are solid and a good read as long as he sticks to discussing the music without extraneous theorising.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    I worked part time for nearly ten years at The Musical Offering, which was right in the heart of Berkeley’s early and classical music scene. Frankly, I never met one customer or musician who was discussing Professor Taruskin. His name seldom ever came up. Just sayin’ . . .

  • MWnyc says:

    “Will Robin’s egregious obituary in Friday’s New York Times, bestowing a stainless halo on the contentious musicologist Taruskin”

    Stainless?? No, Robin left plenty of stains on that halo.

    In fact, I thought that Will Robin did a fairly good job balancing the respect and graciousness one is expected to display when discussing someone who’s just died with acknowledging the departed’s flaws and the controversies around him. Robin weighted the balance toward respect and graciousness, but that’s what one is supposed to do in an obit of someone who’s not, say, Charles Manson or Pol Pot.

    The “critical assessment” pieces (as they’re often called) come a few days later.

  • TimmyVc says:

    It’s cowardly to speak ill of the dead.

  • Zandonai says:

    I can understand how the Elgar omission would anger the British nationalists. However, what did Elgar contribute to the advancement of the Western musical forms? Did he invent or perfect a special musical or operatic genre? No he wrote popular music in the Edwardian era and therefore is unimportant in the Big Picture of the Western music history. BTW – I love Elgar’s music but that’s neither here nor there.

    • Duncan says:

      The problem with this argument is that it could be applied to countless other composers who also didn’t contribute to the advancement of musical forms or invent/perfect a specific musical genre. Yet some of these were mentioned by Taruskin, just not Elgar. However, I still think Taruskin is worth reading.

  • Hilary says:

    I’ve just listened to Taruskin speaking . My first impression is that the timbre/ idiosyncrasies of his voice reminds me of Lorin Maazel. I’ll enjoy listening to the rest.

  • Paul says:

    Ah, a character-assassinating obituary accusing a dead man of character assassination. What’s that called—meta-character-assassination? I call it ironic, and in any case churlish.

    • Tony_B says:

      Quite the contrary, it points out both the good and the bad aspects of Taruskin. And there are plenty of bad ones. Complain to the Post if you think it’s so churlish.

  • A Pianist says:

    This reminds me of the criticism of Ken Burns’ jazz. Many jazzheads would only have been satistisfied if the documentary had been an endless slog highlighting every last jazz performer who contributed anything to the art form. It would have been like listening to an encyclopedia being read. Documentaries can’t be like this, they have to reflect history through a handful of compelling stories that capture the essence of the historical arc. So too it must be with something like the Ox. A laundry list of “people left out” is the dumbest criticism imaginable. Go write The Laundry List of Western Music and see who reads it Tim.

  • Herr Forkenspoon says:

    For an alternative, read; Music A Subversive HIstory, by Ted Gioia.

  • Michael James says:

    Taruskin’s history of music DOES cover Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Sibelius — but in the volume on the nineteenth century.

  • Tony_B says:

    If he didn’t like you, you needed to watch out. He was a brutal intellectual bully who taught many of his students to be the same.